19

January

Have Injuries Possibly Made the Green Bay Packers Better?

As heretical as it may sound, the sheer amount of injuries that have devastated the Packers this season might have just made them a more dangerous team. The Packers of today are essentially an entirely different team than the one that took the field 5 months ago and that has caused confusion for other teams.

One of the most important pre-game preparations is watching game film on team’s and player’s tendencies. The tricky part about playing a team with a new or relatively new players is that there simply isn’t much tape on them.  Couple that with a smart coach who plays to his player’s strengths and the whole team can operate differently.

For instance, the 49ers obviously were at a disadvantage since they had no way of knowing that James Starks was going to be the “hot” running back in week 13 nor did the Bears pay much attention to Erik Walden in the days leading up to the week 17 game.

On the offense, the 3 most significant injuries were to starting running back Ryan Grant, starting tight end Jermichael Finley and starting right tackle Mark Tauscher. Losing Mark Tauscher was perhaps the easiest to cope with; after a disastrous season for the offensive line in 2009, the Packers chose tackle Bryan Bulaga with their first pick and while he has gone through the ups and downs typical of a rookie, he has graded out as the best linemen in terms of pass protection.

While he may not be a finished product just yet, he surely isn’t a liability and in the long run the experience he gains now will probably help him as he becomes the left tackle of the future.

Losing Ryan Grant was a big blow for the offense, in particular in the beginning of the season. While Grant was never the explosive big name running back, he fit particularly well in the Packers offensive scheme and always seemed to be able to get at least a couple yards, regardless of the situation.

Without him, the Packers were left with Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn. While neither was able to fill Grant’s shoes entirely, Kuhn has evolved into a very good short distance runner and with the emergence of rookie James Starks, the Packers have perhaps a slightly upgraded version of Ryan Grant for the future.

The one loss that the Packers never really recovered from was the loss of Jermichael Finley. Since leaving for IR in week 5, no Packers tight end has come remotely close to matching Finley’s production. But paradoxically, even Finley’s injury might have made the Packers a better team.

In the beginning of the season, Aaron Rodgers seemed to have a fixation on Finley as he became Rodger’s safety net, big playmaker and mismatch nightmare all in one. Unfortunately this lead to defenses doubling and keying in on Finley which dropped offensive production overall.

Contrast that to last week’s game against Atlanta, where all four main receivers had at least 75 yards. In short the loss of Finley has lead to a more balanced passing attack, now defense must defend all wide receivers and not just one tight end.

On defense, there hasn’t been much of drop-off due to injuries, strong safety Charlie Peprah could be argued is playing better than rookie strong safety Morgan Burnett and middle linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar have been replaced by AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop without no performance loss there either.

Perhaps the biggest loss would be in outside linebacker Brad Jones, since Frank Zombo nor Erik Walden are as good as Jones against the run, but Walden makes up for it against the pass.

Morgan Burnett’s injury might actually benefit everyone.  It allows Burnett another year to learn the Capers’ 3-4 defense (of which safeties play a key role in calling defensive plays) and in my opinion Charlie Peprah has done a better job that Burnett or Atari Bigby from a year before.

While he isn’t a playmaker, he certainly is a very technically sound player who doesn’t mess up assignments often and can play both the pass and the run equally well, which neither Burnett (not good against the run) or Bigby (not good against the pass) were capable of.

For the outside linebackers, the Packers might have found a pass-rushing specialist in Erik Walden, who garnered NFC player of the week for his 3 sack, 16 tackle game in week 16 against the Bears.

Presumably the Bears will be looking quite in depth this time into Walden for the NFC conference game, and that might open up more opportunities for Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson or Cullen Jenkins.

Also factor in that starter Brad Jones never had the time to become an impact player after taking over the position when Aaron Kampman went onto IR last year, and its not that hard to understand why there wasn’t a huge drop in play from the outside linebacker position across from Clay Matthews.

Finally, both starting middle linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar were replaced by AJ Hawk, who had no snaps in the first game, and “Mr. August” Desmond Bishop (who ironically didn’t have that great of a preseason).

Losing Nick Barnett was the toughest, especially considering the fact that he was the quarterback of the defense who often called the plays for the defense, but AJ Hawk has managed to fill that role and has shown glimpses of being a playmaker (which was one of the criticisms laid onto Hawk as he is a solid player but not worth of the 5th overall pick in 2006) .

On the other side, there was much concern about losing the best coverage linebacker in Bradon Chillar, but coverage might be one of Desmond Bishop most unheralded strengths. For instance, his interception return during the Vikings game in week 7 he was actually covering wide receiver Randy Moss and he’s actually gone out wide to lineup directly across from wide receivers in some situations.

Of course, there are some caveats to all of this; for one, Packers fans should count their blessings that none of their star players like Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews or Charles Woodson were held out for long periods of time. Sometimes, regardless of scheme, there is no way to replace a star player.

Secondly, fans should be raving about head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers; each coach has managed to keep the basic philosophy of their squad intact even with so many changing parts.

Capers in particular has been quoted as saying that he throws out a huge amount of plays based on the personnel he has at his disposal for that given week, yet still manages to keep a consistent defense.

Of course, it could be the other way around, maybe the defense has been so unpredictable because Capers has been forced to not have tendencies being that every  week he can’t run the same plays with  a different set of players to work with.

So it is players or is it the scheme? My personal opinion is that its mostly in the scheme. There are just too many players who had little to no game experience and have filled in nicely, to warrant an argument for the players’ ability.

Sam Shields, Frank Zombo, James Starks and Bryan Bulaga had no game experience at all. Howard Green, Charlie Peprah, Erik Walden and Desmond Bishop had little to none and hadn’t proved much when they were on the field.

It’s a testament to the abilities of the entire coaching staff to how much success all of these one time backups have had.

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Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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17 Responses to “Have Injuries Possibly Made the Green Bay Packers Better?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jersey Al – Packers and others. Jersey Al – Packers said: Have Injuries Possibly Made the Green Bay Packers Better?: As heretical as it may sound, the sheer amount of inj… http://bit.ly/gXmldN [...]

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  2. Ilpackfan says:

    Great Article Al, You were right on spot

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  3. dullgeek says:

    I agree w/your insight on how the loss of Finley has resulted in better play from Rodgers. And no where was this more evident than if you compare how Rodgers played in the first game vs the Bears and how he’s played since. Rodgers would throw to Finley even when he was double teamed. I can think of at least one INT that came about as of this.

    Since then he’s been much more egalitarian. And I suspect that this habit will make the team better.

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    • Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes says:

      Yah I vividly remember the very first drive against Philadelphia in week 1. It was pretty obvious that Rodgers was staring down Finley and I seem to recall it was a pretty bad 3 and out with all the passes.

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  4. Tarynfor12 Taryn says:

    It will be interesting to see how Rodgers reacts to Finley being back, after looking at the over-all production of the many as opposed to when he too often eagle-eyed Finley.

    Another blessing that may come from the injuries and the play of the “step-uppers” is TT may sway away from his BPA in the draft thinking to a more determined “fill the need” mode.

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    • Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes says:

      I think it really comes down to the running game again, if the Packers can move the ball on the ground, then Rodgers doesn’t have to throw it as much, and if he doesn’t have to throw it as much, then Finley won’t be his hot read every play. My feeling is that they would have had to get the wide receivers more involved, even if Finley hadn’t gone out just by necessity, but the injury definitely sped that up.

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  5. Good take. I hope that our most familiar foe, da Bears, don’t have an edge because they have seen us recently. Philly and Atlanta couldn’t look back at the first games because of everything you laid out in this article. The Bears on the other hand played us hard enough to see our cards in week 17. I heard Kurt Warner say this week that Arizona used the week 17 game last season as a scouting tool and attributed it to the playoff success he had a week later. The Giants of ’07 also claim that they benefited from playing the Patriots all out in a meaningless week 17 game. Are the Packers overlooking this, do we have an Ace in the hole, or are we just too hot for it to matter?

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    • Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes says:

      I agree but on the flip side the newer players now have tape of themselves playing against the Bears, so that should help them refine their technique as well. As for who the “hot” player is going to be, it really could be anyone, who knows maybe Quarless will a big game against the tampa-2, which can be exploited by athletic tight ends.

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  6. FireMMNow says:

    good article. interesting take on a negative. certain injuries have definitely made the packers a better team, but definitely not all of them.

    Nick Barnett’s injury definitely improved the defense. Desmond Bishop is just a better player than Barnett and I do not think that can be argued. Chillar was a situational player who I did not feel was a starter.

    Burnett: as bad as it is to lose a rookie, peprah has been better. he has made some impact plays in the run game and delivered some crushing hits. those do show up in the film room of opponents. olsen’s arms might be a little shorter on that seam route this week.

    Finley: I do not think you can make this into a positive at all. Agreed that rodgers was forcing the ball to him early, but like most things with Rodgers he usually makes the necessary adjustments. Against the Bears Finley would be a difference maker. Everyone knows the way to beat the cover 2 is the middle seam. He would keep Urlacher and Briggs in their drops instead of coming up on the run. the adjustments that MM and rodgers have made without Finley is a compliment to them, but absolutely not a benefit to the team.

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    • Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes says:

      I completely agree that Finley was a huge loss, and no other tight end has come remotely close to matching his potential production or his sheer presence. I would say its more of the flip side of the coin than a positive, would Rodgers have kept staring down Finley? Maybe, but the injury sure ended that issue. As for losing the first Bears game, my feeling is that the Packers lost the game not that the Bears won, Finley had 9 catches for 115 yards, but those 18 penalties probably would have killed the Packers regardless

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  7. Chad Toporski Chad Toporski says:

    Good read and an interesting take on the injuries.

    Personally, I see the “silver lining” as something that pertains more to the players than to the opponents. I think that having to overcome the injuries has made the players learn to deal with adversity and to step up their game. It seems to have helped them push through this final month of “must win” games.

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  8. PackersRS says:

    Interesting article, Thomas.

    I think on D you can make that claim, that Peprah is a more physical, aggressive S than Burnett (so far), that Hawk is perhaps a better playcaller than Barnett, and that Bishop playing is a big plus.

    The rest I don’t agree with.

    I understand that the loss of Finley has prevented Rodgers from fixating on only one guy, but truth of the matter is that Finley was a mismatch for any D, and helped the Packers tremenduously, whereas Quarless, Lee and Crabtree have lacked.

    If we had Grant healthy from the beginning, I really believe we would’ve had homefield advantage throughout. We really missed a running game, and with Starks’ injury, we were only able to get one for the playoffs. And even with Grant healthy, Starks would still probably have been used.

    Mark Tauscher for Bulaga is a wash IMHO. Bulaga is the clear better run blocker, but he has really struggled in some games in the pass blocking, which was Tauscher’s greatest strength.

    And on defense, Jenkins missing a lot of time and playing with a cast has been a problem in some games, but a guy that doesn’t get commented a lot but is missed is Mike Neal. He’s a bull. The limited time he was active, he was consistantly winning the battle on the trenches. Can you imagine the kind of pressure we would be putting with him, Jenkins and Raji on the DL? Plus Matthews?

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    • Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes says:

      Mark Tauscher really wasn’t the same player that he was last year, I recall particularly during the Bears game, he seemed to lose his balance quite a lot and he wasn’t really as effective as he once was. My opinion is that Bulaga is pretty close to Tauscher right now overall, and the benefit is that he’s gaining experience for the future as a starting tackle.

      As for the defense, having Neal there would have been a huge benefit. Assuming that Jenkins gets retained by the Packers next year and DL could be one of the Packers deepest positions.

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  9. Ron LC says:

    To me the success of the defense is due to one thing. A DC that can adapt his schemes to the players he has. At the same time he is able to teach the scheme to those fill-ins and develops them to a higher level each game they play in. I submitt Sam Shields was a raw talent with little or no discipline and subject to many mistakes. In recent games Shields is giving front line receivers all they can handle.

    Keep it up Dom!

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  10. [...] Something I think we’ve all been wondering about of late, Have Injuries Possibly Made the Green Bay Packers Better? [...]

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